Skip to content

Britain Liberal Democracy Essay

"Liberal democrat" redirects here. For similarly-named political parties, see Liberal Democrats.

Liberal democracy is a liberalpolitical ideology and a form of government in which representative democracy operates under the principles of classical liberalism. Also called western democracy, it is characterised by fair, free and competitive elections between multiple distinctpolitical parties, a separation of powers into different branches of government, the rule of law in everyday life as part of an open society and the equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties and political freedoms for all people. To define the system in practice, liberal democracies often draw upon a constitution, either formally written or uncodified, to delineate the powers of government and enshrine the social contract. After a period of sustained expansion throughout the 20th century, liberal democracy became the predominant political system in the world.

A liberal democracy may take various constitutional forms: it may be a constitutional monarchy (Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom) or a republic (France, India, Ireland, the United States). It may have a parliamentary system (Australia, Canada, India, Ireland and the United Kingdom), a presidential system (Indonesia and the United States), or a semi-presidential system (France).

Liberal democracies usually have universal suffrage, granting all adult citizens the right to vote regardless of race, gender or property ownership. However, historically some countries regarded as liberal democracies have had a more limited franchise and some do not have secret ballots. There may also be qualifications such as voters being required to register before being allowed to vote. The decisions made through elections are made not by all of the citizens, but rather by those who choose to participate by voting.

The liberal democratic constitution defines the democratic character of the state. The purpose of a constitution is often seen as a limit on the authority of the government. Liberal democracy emphasises the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and a system of checks and balances between branches of government. Liberal democracies are likely to emphasise the importance of the state being a Rechtsstaat, i.e. a state that follows the principle of rule of law. Governmental authority is legitimately exercised only in accordance with written, publicly disclosed laws adopted and enforced in accordance with established procedure. Many democracies use federalism—also known as vertical separation of powers—in order to prevent abuse and increase public input by dividing governing powers between municipal, provincial and national governments (e.g., Germany where the federal government assumes the main legislative responsibilities and the federated Länder assume many executive tasks).[citation needed]


See also: History of liberalism

Liberal democracy traces its origins—and its name—to the European 18th-century, also known as the Age of Enlightenment. At the time, the vast majority of European states were monarchies, with political power held either by the monarch or the aristocracy. The possibility of democracy had not been a seriously considered political theory since classical antiquity and the widely held belief was that democracies would be inherently unstable and chaotic in their policies due to the changing whims of the people. It was further believed that democracy was contrary to human nature, as human beings were seen to be inherently evil, violent and in need of a strong leader to restrain their destructive impulses. Many European monarchs held that their power had been ordained by God and that questioning their right to rule was tantamount to blasphemy.[1]

These conventional views were challenged at first by a relatively small group of Enlightenment intellectuals, who believed that human affairs should be guided by reason and principles of liberty and equality. They argued that all people are created equal and therefore political authority cannot be justified on the basis of "noble blood", a supposed privileged connection to God or any other characteristic that is alleged to make one person superior to others. They further argued that governments exist to serve the people—not vice versa—and that laws should apply to those who govern as well as to the governed (a concept known as rule of law).

Some of these ideas began to be expressed in England in the 17th century.[2] There was renewed interest in Magna Carta,[3] and passage of the Petition of Right in 1628 and Habeas Corpus Act in 1679 established certain liberties for subjects. The idea of a political party took form with groups debating rights to political representation during the Putney Debates of 1647. After the English Civil Wars (1642–1651) and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Bill of Rights was enacted in 1689, which codified certain rights and liberties. The Bill set out the requirement for regular elections, rules for freedom of speech in Parliament and limited the power of the monarch, ensuring that, unlike much of Europe at the time, royal absolutism would not prevail.[4][5] This led to significant social change in Britain in terms of the position of individuals in society and the growing power of Parliament in relation to the monarch.[6][7]

By the late 18th century, leading philosophers of the day had published works that spread around the European continent and beyond. These ideas and beliefs inspired the American Revolution and the French Revolution, which gave birth to the ideology of liberalism and instituted forms of government that attempted to apply the principles of the Enlightenment philosophers into practice. Neither of these forms of government was precisely what we would call a liberal democracy we know today (the most significant differences being that voting rights were still restricted to a minority of the population and slavery remained a legal institution) and the French attempt turned out to be short-lived, but they were the prototypes from which liberal democracy later grew. Since the supporters of these forms of government were known as liberals, the governments themselves came to be known as liberal democracies.[citation needed]

When the first prototypical liberal democracies were founded, the liberals themselves were viewed as an extreme and rather dangerous fringe group that threatened international peace and stability. The conservative monarchists who opposed liberalism and democracy saw themselves as defenders of traditional values and the natural order of things and their criticism of democracy seemed vindicated when Napoleon Bonaparte took control of the young French Republic, reorganised it into the first French Empire and proceeded to conquer most of Europe. Napoleon was eventually defeated and the Holy Alliance was formed in Europe to prevent any further spread of liberalism or democracy. However, liberal democratic ideals soon became widespread among the general population and over the 19th century traditional monarchy was forced on a continuous defensive and withdrawal. The dominions of the British Empire became laboratories for liberal democracy from the mid 19th century onward. In Canada, responsible government began in the 1840s and in Australia and New Zealand, parliamentary government elected by male suffrage and secret ballot was established from the 1850s and female suffrage achieved from the 1890s.[8]

Reforms and revolutions helped move most European countries towards liberal democracy. Liberalism ceased being a fringe opinion and joined the political mainstream. At the same time, a number of non-liberal ideologies developed that took the concept of liberal democracy and made it their own. The political spectrum changed; traditional monarchy became more and more a fringe view and liberal democracy became more and more mainstream. By the end of the 19th century, liberal democracy was no longer only a "liberal" idea, but an idea supported by many different ideologies. After World War I and especially after World War II, liberal democracy achieved a dominant position among theories of government and is now endorsed by the vast majority of the political spectrum.[citation needed]

Although liberal democracy was originally put forward by Enlightenment liberals, the relationship between democracy and liberalism has been controversial since the beginning and was problematized in the 20th century.[9] In his book Freedom and Equality in a Liberal Democratic State, Jasper Doomen posited that freedom and equality are necessary for a liberal democracy.[10] The research institute Freedom House today simply defines liberal democracy as an electoral democracy also protecting civil liberties.

Rights and freedoms[edit]

In practice, democracies do have limits on certain freedoms. There are various legal limitations such as copyright and laws against defamation. There may be limits on anti-democratic speech, on attempts to undermine human rights and on the promotion or justification of terrorism. In the United States more than in Europe, during the Cold War such restrictions applied to communists. Now they are more commonly applied to organisations perceived as promoting actual terrorism or the incitement of group hatred. Examples include anti-terrorism legislation, the shutting down of Hezbollah satellite broadcasts and some laws against hate speech. Critics claim that these limitations may go too far and that there may be no due and fair judicial process.

The common justification for these limits is that they are necessary to guarantee the existence of democracy, or the existence of the freedoms themselves. For example, allowing free speech for those advocating mass murder undermines the right to life and security. Opinion is divided on how far democracy can extend to include the enemies of democracy in the democratic process. If relatively small numbers of people are excluded from such freedoms for these reasons, a country may still be seen as a liberal democracy. Some argue that this is only quantitatively (not qualitatively) different from autocracies that persecute opponents, since only a small number of people are affected and the restrictions are less severe, but others emphasise that democracies are different. At least in theory, opponents of democracy are also allowed due process under the rule of law.

However, many governments considered to be democratic have restrictions upon expressions considered anti-democratic, such as Holocaust denial[citation needed] and hate speech, including prison sentences, ofttimes seen as anomalous for the concept of free speech. Members of political organisations with connections to prior totalitarianism (typically formerly predominant communist, fascist or National Socialists) may be deprived of the vote and the privilege of holding certain jobs. Discriminatory behaviour may be prohibited, such as refusal by owners of public accommodations to serve persons on grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. For example, in Canada a printer who refused to print materials for the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives was fined $5,000, incurred $100,000 in legal fees and was ordered to pay a further $40,000 of his opponents' legal fees by the Human Rights Tribunal.[11]

Other rights considered fundamental in one country may be foreign to other governments. For instance, the constitutions of Canada, India, Israel, Mexico and the United States guarantee freedom from double jeopardy, a right not provided in other legal systems. Also, legal systems that use politically elected court jurors, such as Sweden, view a (partly) politicised court system as a main component of accountable government, distinctly alien to democracies employing trial by jury designed to shield against the influence of politicians over trials. Similarly, many Americans consider the right to keep and bear arms to be an essential feature to safeguard the right to revolution against a potentially abusive government, while other countries do not recognise this as fundamental (the United Kingdom, for example, having strict limitations on the gun ownership by individuals).


Although they are not part of the system of government as such, a modicum of individual and economic freedoms, which result in the formation of a significant middle class and a broad and flourishing civil society, are often seen as pre-conditions for liberal democracy (Lipset 1959).[citation needed]

For countries without a strong tradition of democratic majority rule, the introduction of free elections alone has rarely been sufficient to achieve a transition from dictatorship to democracy; a wider shift in the political culture and gradual formation of the institutions of democratic government are needed. There are various examples—for instance, in Latin America—of countries that were able to sustain democracy only temporarily or in a limited fashion until wider cultural changes established the conditions under which democracy could flourish.[citation needed]

One of the key aspects of democratic culture is the concept of a "loyal opposition", where political competitors may disagree, but they must tolerate one another and acknowledge the legitimate and important roles that each play. This is an especially difficult cultural shift to achieve in nations where transitions of power have historically taken place through violence. The term means in essence that all sides in a democracy share a common commitment to its basic values. The ground rules of the society must encourage tolerance and civility in public debate. In such a society, the losers accept the judgment of the voters when the election is over and allow for the peaceful transfer of power. The losers are safe in the knowledge that they will neither lose their lives nor their liberty and will continue to participate in public life. They are loyal not to the specific policies of the government, but to the fundamental legitimacy of the state and to the democratic process itself.

Liberal democracies around the world[edit]

Several organisations and political scientists maintain lists of free and unfree states, both in the present and going back a couple centuries. Of these, the best known may be the Polity Data Set[15] and that produced by Freedom House and Larry Diamond.

There is agreement amongst several intellectuals and organisations such as Freedom House that the states of the European Union, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Japan, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, South Korea, Taiwan, the United States, India, Canada,[16][17][18][19][20] Mexico, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Israel, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand[21] are liberal democracies, with India currently having the largest population among the democracies in the world.[22] Most liberal democracies are Western societies (with exception of Japan, India and South Korea)

Freedom House considers many of the officially democratic governments in Africa and the former Soviet Union to be undemocratic in practice, usually because the sitting government has a strong influence over election outcomes. Many of these countries are in a state of considerable flux.

Officially non-democratic forms of government, such as single-party states and dictatorships, are more common in East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.


Proportional vs. plurality representation[edit]

Plurality voting system award seats according to regional majorities. The political party or individual candidate who receives the most votes, wins the seat which represents that locality. There are other democratic electoral systems, such as the various forms of proportional representation, which award seats according to the proportion of individual votes that a party receives nationwide or in a particular region.

One of the main points of contention between these two systems is whether to have representatives who are able to effectively represent specific regions in a country, or to have all citizens' vote count the same, regardless of where in the country they happen to live.

Some countries, such as Germany and New Zealand, address the conflict between these two forms of representation by having two categories of seats in the lower house of their national legislative bodies. The first category of seats is appointed according to regional popularity and the remainder are awarded to give the parties a proportion of seats that is equal—or as equal as practicable—to their proportion of nationwide votes. This system is commonly called mixed member proportional representation.

Australia incorporates both systems in having the preferential voting system applicable to the lower house and proportional representation by state in the upper house. This system is argued to result in a more stable government, while having a better diversity of parties to review its actions.


A presidential system is a system of government of a republic in which the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative. A parliamentary system is distinguished by the executive branch of government being dependent on the direct or indirect support of the parliament, often expressed through a vote of confidence.

The presidential system of democratic government has been adopted in Latin America, Africa and parts of the former Soviet Union, largely by the example of the United States. Constitutional monarchies (dominated by elected parliaments) are present in Northern Europe and some former colonies which peacefully separated, such as Australia and Canada. Others have also arisen in Spain, East Asia and a variety of small nations around the world. Former British territories such as South Africa, India, Ireland and the United States opted for different forms at the time of independence. The parliamentary system is widely used in the European Union and neighboring countries.

Issues and criticism[edit]

Further information: Criticism of democracy

According to Karl Marx, popular elections are nothing but the appearance of having the power of decision of who among the ruling classes will misrepresent the people in parliament.[23]

United States economist Steven Levitt argues in his book Freakonomics that campaign spending is no guarantee of electoral success. He compared electoral success of the same pair of candidates running against one another repeatedly for the same job, as often happens in United States Congressional elections, where spending levels varied. He concludes:

A winning candidate can cut his spending in half and lose only 1 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, a losing candidate who doubles his spending can expect to shift the vote in his favor by only that same 1 percent.[24]

Dictatorship of the bourgeoisie[edit]

Main article: Democracy in Marxism

Some Marxists, communists, socialists and anarchists argue that liberal democracy, under capitalist ideology, is constitutively class-based and therefore can never be democratic or participatory. It is referred to as bourgeois democracy because ultimately politicians fight only for the rights of the bourgeoisie. According to Marx, representation of the interests of different classes is proportional to the influence which a particular class can purchase (through bribes, transmission of propaganda through mass media, economic blackmail, donations for political parties and their campaigns, etc.). Thus, the public interest, in so-called liberal democracies, is systematically corrupted by the wealth of those classes rich enough to gain (the appearance of) representation. Because of this, multi-party democracies under capitalist ideology are always distorted and anti-democratic, their operation merely furthering the class interests of the owners of the means of production.

According to Marx, the bourgeois class becomes wealthy through a drive to appropriate the surplus-value of the creative labours of the working class. This drive obliges the bourgeois class to amass ever-larger fortunes by increasing the proportion of surplus-value by exploiting the working class through capping workers' terms and conditions as close to poverty levels as possible. (Incidentally, this obligation demonstrates the clear limit to bourgeois freedom, even for the bourgeoisie itself.)

Thus, according to Marx, parliamentary elections are no more than a cynical, systemic attempt to deceive the people by permitting them, every now and again, to endorse one or other of the bourgeoisie's predetermined choices of which political party can best advocate the interests of capital. Once elected, this parliament, as a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, enacts regulations that actively support the interests of its true constituency, the bourgeoisie (such as bailing out Wall St investment banks; direct socialisation/subsidisation of business – GMH, US/European agricultural subsidies; and even wars to guarantee trade in commodities such as oil).

Vladimir Lenin once argued that liberal democracy had simply been used to give an illusion of democracy while maintaining the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

In short, popular elections are nothing but the appearance of having the power of decision of who among the ruling classes will misrepresent the people in parliament.[25]

The cost of political campaigning in representative democracies favors the rich, a form of plutocracy where only a very small number of individuals can actually affect government policy.[26] In Athenian democracy, some public offices were randomly allocated to citizens, in order to inhibit the effects of plutocracy. Aristotle described the law courts in Athens which were selected by lot as democratic[27] and described elections as oligarchic.[28]

Liberal democracy has also been attacked by some socialists[29] as a dishonest farce used to keep the masses from realizing that their will is irrelevant in the political process, while at the same time a conspiracy for making them restless for some political agenda. Some contend that it encourages candidates to make deals with wealthy supporters, offering favorable legislation if the candidate is elected—perpetuating conspiracies for monopolisation of key areas. Campaign finance reform is an attempt to correct this perceived problem.

In response to these claims, United States economist Steven Levitt argues in his book Freakonomics that campaign spending is no guarantee of electoral success. He compared electoral success of the same pair of candidates running against one another repeatedly for the same job, as often happens in United States Congressional elections, where spending levels varied. He concludes:

"A winning candidate can cut his spending in half and lose only 1 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, a losing candidate who doubles his spending can expect to shift the vote in his favor by only that same 1 percent."[30]

However Levitt's response were also criticised as they miss the Socialist point of view, which is that citizens who have little to no money at all are blocked from political office entirely. This argument is not refuted merely by noting that either doubling or halving of electoral spending will only shift a given candidate's chances of winning by 1 percent.[31]


Critics of the role of the media in liberal democracies allege that concentration of media ownership leads to major distortions of democratic processes. In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky argue via their Propaganda Model[32] that the corporate media limits the availability of contesting views and assert this creates a narrow spectrum of elite opinion. This is a natural consequence, they say, of the close ties between powerful corporations and the media and thus limited and restricted to the explicit views of those who can afford it.[33]

Media commentators also point out that the influential early champions of the media industry held fundamentally anti-democratic views, opposing the general population's involvement in creating policy.

Map reflecting the findings of Freedom House's 2016 survey, concerning the state of world freedom in 2015, which correlates highly with other measures of democracy,[12] though some of these estimates are disputed and controversial[13]


  Partly Free

  Not Free

Percentage of countries in each category, from Freedom House's 1973 through 2013 reports
  Free (90)   Partly Free (58)   Not Free (47)
Countries highlighted in blue are designated "electoral democracies" in Freedom House's 2017 survey "Freedom in the World", covering the year 2016[14]

John Kilcullen

Macquarie University
Copyright (c) 1995, 2000, R.J. Kilcullen.

In Democracy in Australia I argued that the Australian system is a mixture of features, some democratic and some oligarchical. In this lecture I want to outline the thinking behind this mixture. It is not an inconsistency or an accident, as if the drafters of our constitution meant to make a democracy but did not quite succeed. Rather, the Australian constitution is an intelligent and successful solution to certain problems which worried educated people in the 19th century but are now largely forgotten. Perhaps their problems have turned out to be unreal; or perhaps the problems are forgotten because their solution was so successful. The drafters of the Australian Constitution set out to balance Democracy and certain other values, in a tradition of the mixed or balanced constitution coming down from Aristotle.

British attitudes to democracy in the nineteenth century

In the earlier 19th century, when liberalism was in its heyday, the term 'liberal democracy' would have seemed paradoxical or even contradictory. Liberals were frankly against democracy, because they believed it was incompatible with freedom and with things even more important than freedom.

T.B. Macaulay, later Lord Macaulay, famous as an essayist, historian and politician, was one of the leading liberals of the first half of the 19th century. He was a member of Parliament in 1848 when the Chartists presented their petition. This is what he said then about democracy (universal suffrage):

My firm conviction is that, in our country, universal suffrage is incompatible, not with this or that form of government, but with all forms of government, and with everything for the sake of which forms of government exist; that it is incompatible with property, and that it is consequently incompatible with civilisation.

If it be admitted that on the institution of property the well-being of society depends, it follows surely that it would be madness to give supreme power in the state to a class which would not be likely to respect that institution.

[What would be the result?]

We can only guess. My guess is that we should see something more horrible than can be imagined -- something like the siege of Jerusalem on a far larger scale. There would be many millions of human beings, crowded in a narrow space, deprived of all those resources which alone had made it possible for them to exist in so narrow a space; trade gone; manufactures gone; credit gone. What could they do but fight for the mere sustenance of nature, and tear each other to pieces till famine, and pestilence following in the train of famine, came to turn the terrible commotion into a more terrible repose? The best event, the very best event, that I can anticipate, -- and what must the state of things be, if an Englishman and a Whig calls such an event the very best? The very best event, I say, that I can anticipate is that out of the confusion a strong military despotism may arise, and that the sword, firmly grasped by some rough hand, may give a sort of protection to the miserable wreck of all that immense prosperity and glory... Thinking thus, I will oppose, with every faculty which God has given me, every motion which directly or indirectly tends to the granting of universal suffrage.

Well, if this is the voice of liberalism in its heyday, what sense can we hope to make of the term liberal democracy?

In fact, as I will show, it makes good political sense. Let me begin with some historical background. Australian political institutions were shaped by well-educated men. Already in the 19th century in Australia there was an elite well-educated by any standards. This elite supplied the professions, such as the law, and took a leading part in colonial politics (the fact that there were no salaries for members of legislatures made them clubs for the wealthy elite); they were especially interested in constitutional matters, which are so much connected with the law. Their education was English. Some were educated in English public schools and universities, others in Australian imitations of the English institutions. They read English political writers, they knew English history better than their own. And to a great extent they played to an English audience. Colonial politicians knew that their performance was watched in Parliament at Westminster, and in the English press, and in educated circles generally. It was pleasant to visit the home country and find that your career was favourably known to men at the centre. In England educated people were Liberals or Conservatives, but in the colonies conservatism did not flourish; colonial politicians played especially to the liberal audience at home. Many political innovations in which Australia is said to have led the world, such as secret ballot (sometimes called the Australian ballot) and votes for women, were in fact English liberal ideas, especially from the radical wing of the Liberal party, which colonial politicians borrowed, and because of the weakness of conservative opposition put into practice first here, to the applause of advanced liberal circles in England.

Advanced or radical liberals in England tended to be pro-American, and Tories anti-American; a lot of political arguments in the 19th century included reference to the alleged lessons of American experience. Radical liberals in England thought some American institutions should be borrowed; hence the influence on the Australian founding fathers of the American model. Colonial politicians read the books and articles on America written by English liberals, such as Lord Bryce's American Commonwealth. English influence was important even in their borrowing from the U.S.

The word "liberal" came into use in England as a party label in the 1830s, borrowed from Spain. The English liberal party was a coalition of Whigs and Radicals. The Whigs traditionally exalted Parliament against the king, a tradition which went back into the 17th century. Their great event was the Glorious Revolution of 1688. They stood for freedom or liberty and called themselves Friends of the People. But they were not themselves "of the people": the leading Whigs were aristocrats; they liked to keep the King in his place because their family origin was as good as his. Talk of liberty and of The People was a way of reminding the King and his Tory allies that the Whigs could make trouble, by co-operating politically with the middle and lower classes. Until the French Revolution the Whigs felt sure enough of their position in society to listen sympathetically to the common people and to take up their grievances, as their patrons. During the French Revolution some Whigs, like Edmund Burke, became no longer sure that the people could be led and turned conservative. Others remained faithful to their tradition or were locked into it by their earlier words and actions. While the fear of the French Revolution was at its height the liberal Whig remnant were isolated. Their leader, Charles James Fox, stayed away from Parliament (though he was a Member) for several years. But the Whigs were not in favour of Revolution. They thought that the best way to ward off revolution was to adopt a liberal or generous attitude toward the lower classes. The upper classes should make concessions gracefully and in good time, and not wait until the lower classes are roused to exact them. If a revolution happens, it doesn't show that the people are bad and should have been repressed more thoroughly -- repression is self-defeating. What it shows is that the upper classes were not wise enough and self-confident enough to make reasonable concessions in good time. Macaulay on Reform Bill of 1832:

I am opposed to Universal Suffrage, because I think that it would produce a destructive revolution. I support this plan [i.e. the 1832 Reform Bill] because I am sure that it is our best security against a revolution.

Sir F. Baring:

The Whigs are a body of men, connected with high rank and property... who in bad times [such as during the reaction against the French Revolution] keep alive the sacred flame of freedom, and when the people are roused, stand between the constitution and revolution, and go with the people -- but not to extremities.

The Radicals before the 1832 Reform Bill were educated members of the middle classes (who at that time did not have the vote), who agitated for admission to Parliamentary politics. This was a threat of Revolution which the Whigs wanted to remove by timely concession. So the Radicals and Whigs were allies, but also rivals, as allies often are. The Radicals suspected that the Whigs were trying to use use them for their own purposes -- to frighten the Tories into sharing office with the Whigs -- without sacrificing any of the essential interests of the aristocracy. According to James Mill (a leading Radical) the Whigs were simply aristocrats out of office trying to use popular agitation to get back into office. He noted their 'see-saw' way of thinking, arguing first on the popular side, then on the aristocratic side, of questions touching the power and interest of the governing classes, offering themselves as mediators, 'honest brokers', and keeping their options open. But the Radicals were open to the same sort of criticism from people below them in the social scale. Before 1832 the Radicals advocated democracy; that was their ambit claim, so to speak, but they settled for less -- for an extension of voting rights to themselves, to the middle classes; after that they became opponents of democracy.


One thing Whigs and Radicals agreed about was the importance of property. The liberal theory of property goes back to John Locke and Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century. Government exists, they argued, to protect life, liberty (two things sometimes summed up as personal security) and property -- three things bound up close together, because life is not safe for a slave, and life can't be sustained without property. Suppose there were no government to protect property; then productive labour would not be worthwhile -- someone would come and take the product and leave you to starve, or kill you or make you a slave. You're virtually a slave already: your neighbour may be watching you work, ready to move in as soon as you harvest the crop. So you'd better make a pre-emptive attack. But if your neighbours realise you've realised that, they had better make a pre-emptive attack. So each person becomes a danger to every other. Productive labour is a waste of energy, since the product will be taken; all the energy you can muster is needed to make and ward off attacks. If everyone realises this nothing will be produced. But nature does not spontaneously supply all we need; we need to work productively just to stay alive -- still more to have leisure and means for higher forms of civilisation

So if there is no government to protect property and productive labour is not worthwhile, life will be precarious and miserable. As Hobbes wrote:

In such conditions there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea... [consequently] no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts, no letters; no society [human companionship]; and (which is worst of all) continued fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Government makes civilisation -- even mere survival -- possible, by protecting the fruits of industry, i.e., by protecting the producers' property in what they produce.

This theory of property is behind the first of the passages from Macaulay which I read earlier: universal suffrage is incompatible with everything for the sake of which government exists -- it is incompatible with property and consequently incompatible with civilisation; on the institution of property the well-being of society depends.

But in 19th century England property did not usually mean a person's right to keep what his or her own labour produced. Labourers were mostly employees, whose product belongs beforehand to their employer. But according to the liberal writers, such as those Radicals who called themselves Political Economists (for example, James Mill), the employer's property rights grow out of the basic right to own what you produce. Part of ownership is the right to exchange what is yours on such terms as you think fit or to give it away (or leave it by bequest) to whomever you choose. After a while inequality will develop, since some people produce more than others and accumulate more by receiving gifts or bequests or by making advantageous exchanges. They may accumulate enough productive resources for it to seem worthwhile to others to make voluntary agreements to work for them. The employer's right to his or her capital is thus simply the right to own what he or she has made or received by gift or bequest or voluntary exchange. Any interference with voluntary exchange is a violation of the parties' right to part with what is theirs as they choose. So free trade, and freedom of enterprise generally, follows from the right to own property.

Liberals were afraid that a democracy would not respect the property rights of employers. People are shortsighted, especially ignorant hungry people, and it would be in their short-term interest to confiscate and redistribute the property of the rich. But in the long run this would be a disaster for everyone. Capital accumulation would cease, and without enough capital labour is not productive enough to support the population of modern European countries. The Political Economists had discovered the law of diminishing returns -- double the input, and you get something less than double the output. So with given resources and technology as population increases more capital per head is needed to maintain the same living standard. If capital is destroyed or not reproduced, some part of the existing population must starve. This is the line of thought behind the second of the passages from Macaulay which I read earlier. An attack on property would lead to something like the siege of Jerusalem, only worse: "millions of human beings crowded in a narrow space, deprived of all those resources which alone had made it possible for them to exist in so narrow a space".

Perhaps I should say something more about the opinions of Political Economists, James Mill, Ricardo, McCulloch, Nassau Senior, Torrens, J.S. Mill. (See Free Enterprise and its Critics.)They stressed the importance of capital investment and the danger that it would lag behind population growth -- which would lead eventually to starvation and a reduction of population. Any burden upon or obstacle to capital formation is therefore contrary to the true interests even of the poorer classes -- especially them. So the burdens of the poor law (1834 Poor Law Report) must be reduced, taxation must be kept low, and nothing done to raise wages artificially. In fact wages can't be raised artificially for long; higher wages lead to higher prices, migration of capital, and unemployment. So trade union and government action to raise wages is futile. At the time the Combination Acts made trade unions illegal -- as on liberal principles they should be, as conspiracies to violate the right of freedom of exchange. Paradoxically, the Political Economists argued for a repeal of the Combination Acts; by making them illegal, they argued, we merely suggest to the working classes that trade unions are effective; legalise them and labourers will soon discover that they are futile. The only remedy to the poverty of the working classes is population restraint. The main message of Political Economy to the working classes was this: nothing can be done for you (though we feel for your distress); have fewer children and they will be better off.

J.S. Mill wrote:

Many of the truths of politics (in political economy, for instance) are the result of a concatenation of propositions, the very first steps of which no one who has not gone through a course of study is prepared to concede; there are others, to have have a complete perception of which requires much meditation, and experience of human nature. How will philosophers bring these home to the perceptions of the multitude? Can they enable common sense to judge of science, or inexperience of experience? Every one who has even crossed the threshold of political philosophy knows, that on many of its questions the false view is greatly the most plausible; and a large portion of its truths are, and must always remain, to all but those who have specially studied them, paradoxes; as contrary, in appearance, to common sense, as the proposition that the earth moves round the sun. The multitude will never believe those truths, until tendered to them from an authority in which they have as unlimited confidence as they have in the unanimous voice of astronomers on a question of astronomy.

The protection of property

Thus the protection of property, especially capital, against the shortsightedness and hunger of the majority is in the long term interest of the majority itself -- confiscation would improve their lot for a while, but make it much worse in the long run. this point can be generalised:

But since men usually do what they like, often being perfectly aware that it is not for their ultimate interest, still more often that it is not for the interest of their posterity; and when they do believe that the object they are seeking is permanently good for them, almost always overrating its value; it is necessary to consider, not who are they whose permanent interest, but who are they whose immediate interests and habitual feelings, are likely to be most in accordance with the end we seek to obtain. And as that end (the general good) is a very complex state of things, comprising as its component elements many requisites which are neither of one and the same nature, nor attainable by one and the same means -- political philosophy must begin by a classification of these elements, in order to distinguish those of them which go naturally together (so that the provision made for one will suffice for the rest), from those which are ordinarily in a state of antagonism, or at least of separation, and require to be provided for apart. This preliminary classification being supposed, things would, in a perfect government, be so ordered, that corresponding to each of the great interests of society, there would be some branch or some integral part of the governing body, so constituted that it should not be merely deemed by philosophers, but actually and constantly deem itself, to have the strongest interests involved in the maintenance of that one of the ends of society which it is intended to be the guardian of. (J.S. Mill)

Suppose there are institutions beneficial in the long run to all, but obviously and immediately beneficial only to a few; then, if people are generally ignorant and shortsighted, it may be beneficial to all to give the favoured few enough political power to protect the institution against the majority. That was the main premise of liberal arguments against democracy. The people putting the argument forward of course belonged to the favoured few; but it was not just an open assertion of self-interest. The argument was that the institutions they were defending were in everyone's interest -- in the interest of the whole community (a characteristic liberal word, suggesting a common interest), not just a class or section; the threat was from the shortsighted selfishness of a class ignorant that its own true, long-term interests are identical with those of the more fortunate sections of the community.

Making the best of democracy

But by mid-century many liberals had come to think that argument against democracy was futile; it was coming inevitably and would not be stopped by any argument. This attitude was expressed and propagated by a book by a French visitor to America, Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. A translation was published in England in 1835, and it was appealed to by both sides in English politics. It was reviewed by James Mill's son, John Stuart Mill. De Tocqueville's message, according to Mill, was "that the progress of democracy neither can nor ought to be stopped. The problem is not to determine whether democracy shall come, but how to make the best of it when it does come". Every century since the dawn of modern times has done something to lower the powerful and raise the low. Such a trend over so many centuries won't be stopped now. Eventually artificial inequalities will disappear, "those inequalities only remaining which are the natural and inevitable effect of the protection of property". The protection of property against the democracy is of course the difficulty. Some time remains: "the impulse... is so strong that it cannot be stopped, but not yet so rapid that it cannot be guided... The first duty... is to educate the democracy... [to give it] an acquaintance with its true interests" (such as its long-term interest in the protection of property). "We have it not in our power to choose between democracy and aristocracy;... but the choice we are still called upon to make is between a well and an ill-regulated democracy; and on that depends the future well-being of the race". In other essays and books Mill took up this task of preparing for democracy. For example in his essay "Civilisation", Mill wrote:

If, on the contrary, he thinks the masses unprepared for complete control over their government -- seeing at the same time that, prepared or not, they cannot long be prevented from acquiring it -- he will exert his utmost efforts in contributing to prepare them; using all means, on the one hand, for making the masses themselves wiser and better; on the other, for so rousing the slumbering energy of the opulent and lettered classes, so storing the youth of those classes with the profoundest and most valuable knowledge, so calling forth whatever of individual greatness exists or can be raised up in the country, as to create a power which might partially rival the mere power of the masses, and might exercise the most salutary influence over them for their own good.

This rival power, balancing the mere power of the masses, became a leading theme in Mill's thought:

The numerical majority of any society whatever, must consist of persons all standing in the same social position, and having, in the main, the same pursuits,...Where there is identity of position and pursuits, there also will be identity of partialities, passions, and prejudices; and to give to any one set of partialities, passions and prejudices absolute power, without counter-balance from partialities, passions, and prejudices of a different sort, is the way to render the correction of any of those imperfections hopeless; it is necessary that the institutions of society should make provision for keeping up, in some form or other, as a corrective to partial views, and a shelter for freedom of thought and individuality of character, a perpetual and standing opposition to the will of the majority...a centre of resistance, round which all the moral and social elements which the ruling power views with disfavour may cluster themselves, and behind whose bulwarks they may find shelter from the attempts of that power to hunt them out of existence.

[Notice how the argument is framed so as to apply always and everywhere -- no discrimination against the 19th century English lower classes.] This was part of his argument for freedom of thought (On Liberty Chapter 2): human beings are fallible; if their mistakes are ever to be corrected, there must be freedom for different ideas to exist and be presented in public discussion. This does not mean that one opinion is as good as another. In many subjects, notably in political economy, the multitude cannot expect to work out the truth themselves, unaided by the guidance of authority. There must be "deference to superiority of cultured intelligence". The democratic spirit is against it, but deference to intellectual authority is rational and necessary. To deserve deference intellectual authority must rest not on coercion but on agreement, near unanimity among those who have studied the subject seriously, reached after free discussion. The confidence of the multitude "will be given as soon as knowledge shall have made sufficient progress among the instructed classes themselves, to produce something like a general agreement...".

Balancing the power of the majority

So to make the best of democracy when it comes one thing needed is to build up a standing opposition to balance the mere power of the mass, with freedom to speak out, with a deserved authority over public opinion. But as well, a balanced of classes must be built into political institutions. This is one of the concerns of Mill's book Representative Government. It is desirable, Mill argues, "that no class, and no combination of classes likely to combine, should be able to exercise a preponderant influence in the government". The class division that matters is between "manual labourers and their affinities on one side, employers of labour and their affinities on the other". The representative system would be ideally perfect if each of these two groups influenced an equal number of votes in Parliament. Assuming, as Mill does, that most of each class would be mainly moved by class interest, the balance of power would be held by the minority of both classes who look to "reason, justice and the good of the whole". "This minority of either, joining with the whole of the other, would turn the scale against any demands of their own minority which should not prevail". This sounds pretty fair; but bear in mind that Mill is not envisaging a clean slate upon which nothing is to be written until the fair-minded members of both classes agree to it. What's written already stays until both parties agree to take it off. Certain social and economic arrangements already exist and will continue, and nothing is to be changed unless the fair-minded members of the advantaged class agree to it -- which may put some strain upon their fair-mindedness, and on their ties with their friends and relations.

So to prevent class legislation -- which means in this situation confiscation of the property of the rich, or the imposition of heavy tax burdens -- the wealthier classes should get more representation than their mere numbers would warrant on democratic principles, to give the more fair-minded section of that class a veto over proposals for social change.

Another proposal Mill makes is that extra votes should be given to educated people. This will help the balance of classes, and will also foster deference to intellectual superiority.

The institutions of the country should stamp the opinions of persons of a more educated class as entitled to greater weight than those of the less educated: and I should still contend for assigning plurality of votes to authenticated superiority of education, were it only to give the tone to public feeling, irrespective of any direct political consequences...

In that falsely called democracy which is really the exclusive rule of the operative classes, all others being unrepresented and unheard, the only escape from class legislation in its narrowest, and political ignorance in its most dangerous, form, would lie in such disposition as the uneducated might have to choose educated representatives, and to defer to their opinions.

 Framing a new constitution for a modern country

The problem with all such schemes is that the rising tide of democracy is likely to sweep them away. If the trend to democracy is irreversible, why should it stop at such things as extra representation for the propertied classes, or (practically the same thing) at extra votes for the educated classes? Liberals after Mill were increasingly concerned with this problem -- how to make the undemocratic elements defensible against democracy. Mill's leading disciple in the next generation was Henry Sidgwick, professor at Cambridge, and author of standard university textbooks on Economics, Politics and Ethics. (Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics is still highly respected among students of the subject.) In his Elements of Politics, published in 1891 (the same year as the first Convention to draft the Australian Constitution), Sidgwick reformulated Mill's ideas of a balanced constitution. The danger of universal franchise is "that the ultimate interests of the whole community may be sacrificed to the real or apparent class interests of the numerical majority" acting out of ignorance or selfishness. No remedy to this by restricting the franchise seems "permanently defensible". "But the danger may be more or less effectively met by giving the wealthier and more educated classes a representation in the legislature out of proportion to their numbers". Something can be done toward this by not paying members of Parliament:

Since they will then be more independent, and being drawn in the main from the minority of persons of wealth and leisure, will be generally disposed, from training and habit, and also from regard to the sentiment of their class, to do justice to the reasonable claims of the rich in any disputed question on which rich and poor are opposed. [And only to their reasonable claims?]

Another way is to have two chambers, which Sidgwick calls House of Representatives and Senate, giving wealth and political intelligence a majority in the upper house. Explicit division into classes unequally represented is invidious and therefore not permanently defensible against the rising tide of democracy:

It hardly seems that the institution of a second chamber, avowedly representative of wealth on a large scale, is likely to be a permanently effective way of meeting this danger; on account of the specially marked and invidious opposition between wealth and numbers which it introduces. I think, therefore, that a wise partisan of the wealthy minority, in framing a new constitution for a modern country, would accept as a principle of construction that a Senate ought primarily to represent superior culture or political enlightenment rather than wealth.

However it must be popularly elected (as the Australian Senate is):

Supposing that a real power of resistance is desired, it is important to appoint the Senate in a manner that will make it practically strong enough to hold its own in a conflict with the House of Representatives... This desired result is not likely to be obtained... unless the members of the Senate have also the strength given by popular election.

To reconcile popular elections with "a preponderance of political intelligence" (and unavowedly of wealth), Sidgwick suggests a scheme -

providing that the members of the Senate should be (1) fewer in number and so chosen from larger districts, and therefore likely to have a higher average of personal eminence; (2) appointed at a more advanced age, and (3) for a longer period; and also (4) on the plan of partial renewal.


This is an imitation of the American Senate. Federalism was a feature of the American Constitution attractive to liberals of Sidgwick's generation, perhaps because it provides a strong defensible basis for the power of an Upper House. The prime function of the Senate, to strengthen the power of the upper classes, is in a Federal system combined with a function easier to defend, that of protecting the rights of the states. Local patriotism, and a well-founded suspicion of people in the larger centres of population, ensures wide public support for the Upper House from people who might otherwise have been antagonistic towards the wealthier classes and towards departures from democratic principles. The link between the upper house and federalism seems to me to be a real stroke of brilliance in the Australian Constitution, and in the American Constitution from which it is borrowed. Any attempt to abolish or weaken the house which "wise partisans of the wealthy minority" have set up "to represent superior culture or political enlightenment" will encounter opposition also from people in smaller states who have no wealth or pretensions to culture.

Another advantage of the Federal System well understood by 19th century liberals is that it provides a defence in depth against class legislation directed against the rich. This was argued by James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the American constitution (Federalist Papers, No.10). Madison was concerned about what he called "faction". Faction is "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority [my emphasis] or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community". A majority united to despoil the rich is a faction. Faction arises especially because of inequality of property, which is due to "the diversity of the faculties of men". "The protection of these faculties is the first object of government". (Cf. Hobbes and Locke). Pure democracy (as in ancient Athens) offers no remedy to faction; "such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention, [and] have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property". However "a republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place" -- representative government, in Mill's terminology -- promises a cure: delegation of government to a small elected body. The effect is --

to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves.

A federal government must be a representative government, and federalism has further advantages:

The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonourable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary...The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular country or district, than an entire State.

So against such improper and wicked projects as an equal division of property federalism provides defence-in-depth.

The influence of Aristotle's "polity"

Besides America, the English liberal writers studied the political experience of ancient Greece. Educated Englishmen read the Greek classics, from which conservative historians drew a mainly unfavourable account of the politics of the Greek democracies. So important did this seem for current politics that the Radicals (while they were still democrats) set out to rewrite the history of Greece to do more justice to democracy -- see the opening page of George Grote's History of Greece, still a respected work on the subject. George Grote was a radical banker, a disciple of James Mill.

In the Greek classics they found Aristotle's discussion of the pros and cons of democracy and oligarchy. Neither of these forms of government, Aristotle argued, is just or lasting: the democracy oppresses the rich, who conspire and carry out an oligarchical revolution, but in turn under oligarchy the rich oppress the people. What is needed is a mixture of oligarchy and democracy, what he calls "polity" or "constitutional government". In a polity the Assembly is open to all and will in practice be dominated by the poor majority; high office is also open to all, by election by the Assembly. So there is equality of political rights. In practice, however, office will go mostly to the rich, because officers will not be paid a salary and may have expensive duties. "If office brought no profit then and only then could democracy and aristocracy be combined... all would be able to hold office, which is the aim of democracy, and the notables would be magistrates, which is the aim of aristocracy" (Politics V.8) The wealthy officers would behave fairly, because the Assembly could call them to account. "The principle of responsibility secures that... the right persons rule and are prevented from doing wrong, and the people have their due" (VI.4). The poor and ignorant are not fit for high office and will not in practice hold it, but for collective decision making, as when they call officers to account, their judgement is good enough (III.11). (Cf. J.S. Mill: "The idea of a rational democracy is not that the people themselves govern, but that they have security for good government", p.71).

To return for a moment to Henry Sidgwick:

I do not consider representative government -- even when the suffrage is universal -- as merely a mode of organising democracy, but rather as a combination or fusion of democracy and aristocracy. This fusion or combination may become less or more aristocratic in character through various minor modifications. [for example]... by establishing non-payment of legislators, we introduce an oligarchical element into the government, and effect in some degree the kind of fusion between oligarchy and democracy which Aristotle recommended as the best practical solution of the war of classes in the city-states of Greece. And I think that non-payment of legislators is likely to be an institution more easy to maintain against a strong drift towards democracy than other oligarchical expedients -- limited suffrage, plural vote, etc. -- because it has the advantage, which the poor are likely to appreciate, of saving money. For the same reason the oligarchical effect of the measure is not likely to be extensively neutralised -- though it may be to some extent -- by combinations of the poor to elect members of their own class and pay them a salary.

Of course this particular oligarchical expedient has since been neutralised completely by the payment of parliamentary salaries. The interesting point here is that Sidgwick is quite prepared to describe measures he advocates as "oligarchical expedients" and acknowledges that he is following Aristotle's suggestion of mixing oligarchy and democracy as a solution to the war of classes.

According to Aristotle:

There is a true union of oligarchy and democracy when the same state may be termed either a democracy or an oligarchy... In a well attempered polity there should appear to be both elements and yet neither. (Politics IV.9).

In other words, if a government is properly mixed, it is hard to say whether it is a democracy or an oligarchy; it depends on which features your attention is focused on. This is precisely liberal democracy: a mixture of democratic and oligarchical features, which can be called a democracy if certain features are not attended to -- or, if you emphasise those features, oligarchy.

Educating the democracy

As de Tocqueville said, democracy could not be stopped; the problem was to make the best of it when it does come. One necessity was to educate the democracy to a perception of its true long-term interests, which include respect for property. As J.S. Mill said in his Autobiography, "it would become the interest of the opulent classes to promote their education, in order to ward off really mischievous errors, and especially those which would lead to unjust violation of property". "So long as education continues to be so wretchedly imperfect, we dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass". Macaulay (1847) argued that public money should be spent on the education of the common people. "Can it be denied that the education of the common people is a most efficient means of securing our [everyone's] persons and our property?" "It is the duty of government to protect our persons and property from danger. The gross ignorance of the common people is a principal cause of danger to our persons and property. Therefore it is the duty of the government to take care that the common people shall not be grossly ignorant".

The education they are talking about is not in physics and chemistry and arithmetic, but in political economy (public political discussion is largely an education in Political Economy) and other subjects related to politics -- perhaps especially not in formal subjects, but in what is these days sometimes called the "hidden curriculum", the unspoken assumptions on which life in schools and universities is based. As David Hume argued in the 18th century, in a passage I quoted last week, people are governed in the last analysis not by force but through their opinions, their opinions of right and of interest. Nineteenth century liberals were aware of the importance of opinion as the basis for public order -- especially the opinions that respect for property is right, and that it is in the interest of all.

Although government depends ultimately on opinion, of course it also uses force. To quote Macaulay again:

If you take away education, what means do you leave?... You leave guns and bayonets, stocks and whipping posts, treadmills, solitary cells, penal colonies... Can it be doubted which [means] we ought to prefer?... To me it seems quite clear that whoever has a right to hang has a right to educate.

Persons and property must be protected by physical force if necessary, but it is better to do it by the force of opinion. This use of opinion is these days sometimes referred to as hegemony. This is a Greek word meaning leadership, a softer word than the Greek word for outright rule. In Greek history "the hegemony of Thebes' (for example) means that the city of Thebes led certain other cities, nominally independent, which followed the Theban lead because they shared the same opinions, but with the threat of force in the background.

Timely concession

Part of the art of this sort of leadership is tact -- knowing when to be silent, which things not to allow to become issues. This was clearly realised by some of the liberal writers of the 19th century. After the passage of the 1867 Reform Bill, which extended the Franchise more widely, Walter Bagehot wrote:

The common ordinary mind is quite unfit to fix for itself what political question it shall attend to... And in settling what these questions shall be, statesmen have now especially a great responsibility if they raise questions which will excite the lower orders of mankind; if they raise questions on which those orders are likely to be wrong; if they raise questions on which the interest of those orders is not identical with, or is antagonistic to, the whole interest of the State... topics which will bind the poor as a class together; topics which will excite them against the rich;... And the mode in which the questions dealt with are discussed is almost as important as the selection of these questions. It is for our principal statesmen to lead the public, and not to let the public lead them... But much argument is not required to guide the public, still less a formal exposition of that argument. What is mostly needed is the manly utterance of clear conclusions; if a statesman gives these in a felicitous way (and if with a few light and humorous illustrations, so much the better), he has done his part. He will have given the text, the scribes in the newspapers will write the sermon. But in all cases it must be remembered that a political combination of the lower classes, as such and for their own objects, is an evil of the first magnitude; that a permanent combination of them would make them (now that so many of them have the suffrage) supreme in the country; and that their supremacy, in the state they now are, means the supremacy of ignorance over instruction and of numbers over knowledge. So long as they are not taught to act together, there is a chance of this being averted... while they [the upper classes] have still the power they must remove not only every actual grievance, but, where it is possible, every seeming grievance too; they must willingly concede every claim which they can safely concede, in order that they may not have to concede unwillingly some claim which would impair the safety of the country.

This advice, too, will be said to be obvious, but I have the greatest fear that, when the time comes, it will be cast aside as timid and cowardly. So strong are the combative propensities of man that he would rather fight a losing battle than not fight at all. It is most difficult to persuade people that by fighting they may strengthen the enemy, yet that would be so here; since a losing battle -- especially a long and well-fought one -- would have thoroughly taught the lower orders to combine, and would have left the higher orders face to face with an irritated, organised, and superior voting power. The courage which strengthens an enemy and which so loses, not only the present battle, but many after battles, is a heavy curse to men and nations.

This is the sort of leadership -- in making timely concessions -- so characteristic of the Whig tradition.

"Liberal democracy"

To sum up, liberal democracy is a compromise arrived at by liberals in the course of the 19th century between democracy and oligarchy (or aristocracy), a compromise embodied in our political institutions, backed by education, political economy and other currents of opinion, requiring tactful leadership from statesmen aided by "the scribes in the newspapers". The compromise is not just an accident. It has behind it a theory of society, a theory which is not just a natural assertion of self-interest: it argues in terms of the long term interests of all.

Fragments of this theory still echo in the heads of modern statesmen, but as Bagehot says "much argument is not needed" -- now that institutions which seem to solve the problem are a going concern, they can almost do without theory. And most Political Scientists who study the working of our political institutions don't seem to be aware of the theory behind them and don't consider what politics might have been like if the institutions had been different. The institutional framework is taken for granted as something inevitable, natural, permanent, and attention is focused on how the game is played within these rules.

Appendix: Events of the Australian 1975 constitutional crisis anticipated by Sigdwick

Elements of Politics, p. 439-40 on the monarch's power of resistance:

He may appeal from Parliament to the electorate, by dissolving the representative assembly, provided he can find ministers willing to take the responsibility of this measure. It is quite consistent with the general scheme of English constitutional monarchy that the monarch should have this power: and I believe that... the monarch in England is still held to have it: though it has not been exercised since 1834. That is, the monarch would not act unconstitutionally by dismissing his ministers, even though they had the confidence of a majority in the representative assembly, and then appointing others, who would then dissolve the assembly, in hopes of changing the balance of parties in parliament by a new election... This power is not likely to be used except when the monarch has strong reason to think that the Cabinet and representative assembly together will be found in disagreement with the majority of the electorate as well as with himself. And under these conditions the exercise of such a power would probably be on the whole beneficial; although, according to the line of reasoning adopted in the present treatise, it is not an undoubted gain, nor the main object of the representative system, to secure that the executive and legislative organs of government shall follow as closely as possible all change in popular opinion and sentiment. [Footnote: It is further to be said that this power of dissolution might be valuable in a crisis as a means of defeating he designs of an ambitious minister, meditating a coup d'etat. But it might equally be used to promote revolution, either by an ambitious monarch aiming at an increase of his power, or by a weak monarch worked as a puppet by others.]

Further Reading

W. Bagehot, The English Constitution (JN125.B3)

E. Burke, 'An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs in his Works (ed. F.W. Raffety), Vol.5 (DA506.B85)

Lively, J. and Rees, J., Utilitarian Logic and Politics: James Mill's 'Essay on Government', Macaulay's critique and the ensuing debate (Oxford, 1978). [JC223.M653.U87]

Burns, J.H., 'J.S. Mill and Democracy', Political Studies, 5 (1957), pp. 158-75, 281-94. [JA1.P63]

J.S. Mill, Representative Government, chapters 3, 6, 8, 12 in his Collected Works, Vol.19 (B1602.A2U19) (Also at B1571.M6, JC423M6, JC585.M6)

Pratt, R.C., 'The Benthamite Theory of Democracy', Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, vol. 21, pp. 20-9. [H1.C3]

Rosen, F., Jeremy Bentham and Representative Democracy: A Study of the 'Constitutional Code' (Oxford, 1983). [K3240.4.R67]

J. Madison, The Federalist Papers, No.10 (JK154)

A. Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy (JF271.D92)

Go to Free Enterprise and its Critics

Return to Politics, Philosophy and Medieval Studies